Short Story - Untitled and Unfinished

    Something. Reach a hand out, flex the fingers just to feel the skin stretch and strain against the cold (but I never knew cold and he always did and didn’t like it so we must’ve met halfway and that was how we defined it: cold). Turn over. Fragments: something: grayish eyes bouncing their light off the trees and an owl perched on his shoulder. He says, a whisper quieter than if he’d said nothing at all, “You could go if you wanted.” The blackness of something--something used once to stop boats their uselessness fills in the gaps left by his words as his mouth continues moving. The owl flutters its wings. Hoots.
    “There was a nest of great horned owls that lived in the tree in front of my house.” I say it. He smiles to it. “I liked sitting on the driveway at dusk and waiting for them to fly out.” Smile again and a new chuckle. Blue filaments, light, filing towards the owl; it looks back at him. Laughter from one or both and I feel warm. Smells of dense soil, orchard soil late in the growing season: watered and rewatered and rewatered again, perfect mud and horrible footing. It’s cold. My feet, for no reason, feelings they’ve no business muddling in down in their nice cool mud while my body shivers. Enjoy that soil, baby.
    In the morning I’ve made pancakes, and I look up what an owl means. Change; fluidity of life, as it turns out, to which I rub my nose with the back of my hand (it’s cold) and my mouth’s corners twitch hard upward.
    “It’s almond blossom season.”
    “I know.” My nose doesn’t hate this time of year like most others’ who’ve lived their whole lives around the trees. Maybe it’s because I never accepted that the body would slowly be beaten down by the pollen rather than build up a yearly immunity; that’s how it should operate. My hands find a rough patch of denim to slide into because it should be colder but it’s not. I’m outside anyways, and the sky is effervescent slightly-green blue, the specific cool kind that slices meanly at your eyes. That blue looks nothing but honest, so I keep my hands in my pockets and hope for rain.
    The car’s silver like those disgusting bugs (fish? silverfish) that eat at bookbindings and the glue of wallpaper (we get those bastards in the house every winter and the earwigs replace ‘em in the spring) but it makes me want to go anyways.
    “Thinking of going somewhere?”
    “Nah.” I am a liar: in my head I’ve been picturing the hundreds of places I’ve been that aren’t here in this house, with its disgusting equinoctial infestations. A city that emerges from urban highway rolling into sensual hills filled with lusting green and you can feel its inhabitants writhe (pulse) to the city’s movements from the foothills where it spills out pure vibrating breasts  heaving towards the sea (the bay). Then: someplace so isolated and dense and free anyways that I stumbled upon sex (“stumble” is an apt word not for the circumstances of discovery but because certainly it lead to some deep falls later on, my grace forever affected), unleashed something triumphant and heathen from somewhere soft and filled with the sound of heavy breaths that tumble out onto heaving breasts and on towards some deep wetness; twigs snap around and I shone a flashlight into the dark in the afterglow but there was nothing to reflect it, so I turned it off and moved over to the other sleeping form which was just that: sleeping--so I just slept alone. And then: walking to the old-style water pump in the cold and the dark (god-fucking-damnit it’s summer why’s it so cold up here), stumbling on stones and branches and as I clumsily pass hearing a loud, thick lapping at the river--flup flup flup--that stops curiously as the distance between me and whatever extremely large looming beast (or monster) is over there closes like its mouth--flup    flup    fl--and I return to ridiculous shelter in moonlight that forces me to shed, one by one, all of my various security constructs (bears don’t lap like that deer are too small must be a cougar cougar shit it must be a fucking cougar) and my pace quickened with my pulse.
    “Nah,” I say again and push my hands deeper into my pockets. My feet twitch slightly, toes cracking beneath my shoeleather and I step further down the slight angle of the driveway. I am no liar; I don’t really want to go back to any of those places, anyhow. They’re just pretty carrion, slowly decomposing into a mass of uniform and oozing sap, like blighted almond tree bark split by thick viscous amber, vicious and bitter. But their containers are still pretty, and if I can enjoy the places in my head as just places and not settings per se, I don’t have to pay attention to the hatred that happened in them.
    My name’s being called and I choose to ignore it, though the tone is getting more mean and full of warning with every syllable. I kind of like the way those fluctuations of warning dance together: hon-ee HON-ee hon eeHONwherereyouGOin. Right at the end of the driveway. Left onto Nan. Right onto Jeppson (past the uncomfortable low-income units). Right onto Toomes. Left onto Kiernan. Long gravel road, sidewalk on the side of the street I’m not on, wait for cars to clear and listen to make sure there aren’t any barking guard dogs near and then sidestep through the gaps in the trees (somewhere in the back of my head I’m always [every damn time] aware this is a crime and farmers will always have guns before they have the chance to see that I’m just some girl).
    Looking for dogs reminds me of when I was almost a woman--or maybe I was, since it was after the stumble that I’d really taken to orchard-walking: I’d done it my whole life, but only really when I needed to clear my head; or maybe once you’ve dabbled in sex your head always needs clearing--and walking through the orchards out here. It was summer, so the trees were green and tortured with the tightly holding drops of ripe fruits. Cracking the dull greenish shells was always satisfying, then, because you got to see the little sad gem of a budding almond, pretty and golden-brown without the beautiful fullness, like brown eyes.
     (I didn’t know my own eyes were hazel until someone pointed it out to me, not even a boyfriend just someone, maybe even the optometrist--I thought they were just dull brown but then I was fascinated and actually looked and Jesus, light amber brown and green like Sierra sweetgrass and even some pretty yellow honey-colors and then spots of teal, too. My friends [girls] thought it was really, really unusual that I hadn’t scrutinized every goddamn square inch of self I had, and I blushed but secretly took pleasure in that small gesture of late self-discovery.)
    I’d been walking the seam of the orchards, Hammett Road (or Drive), just ambling and letting the valley summer lift its hot, dense fingers over my brassy shoulders while the occasional car zipped past, rumbling over the shred of asphalt gravel. A few of them infuriated the summer’s humid pregnancy to stir, slipping around my body a merciful cooling lace of wind that was there and gone, the valley having regained her staunch composure. I crossed over the canal, a cool non-liquid green vein of murk flowing under a weathered “No Trespassing” sign, and veered hard to the left, across the gentle slope of Hammett’s eastern end. Of course there were more orchards over there, and like all the other orchards in Salida, it was an almond orchard: green leaves flitting over the rich ripe shells of its clinging spring-conceived fruits, trunk finely lined and rough, a thick gray hide that occasionally was broken with hardened glowing bubbles of sap too thick and airy to flow down (so they froze there waiting to fall from gravity instead of fluidity). I peeled one of the sick oranges from its wound and played with it as I let myself diffuse into the walking.
    It smelled bitter, which is a switch that people who haven’t had the chance to spend their lives less than a block from acres and acres of almond orchards tend not to expect; for whatever reason, bitterness comes to mind in the consideration of almonds, probably because of its extract. But the orchards are fermenting in earthiness, thick and hooded with the moisture of immense decay in the summer--and in the spring, light and fickle and sweet-smelling, not dry but just warming up from the winter. (I will find cause to mention the blossoms later, I suspect.) I was being stupid, not paying too much attention to all of my surroundings--focused too intently on the task of tracking a raccoon that’d left fresh prints in the mud. Something pulled on me, a staccatoed bit of noise that I didn’t hear and my mind did. The second time, I heard it: barking.
    Dogs, I’ve gathered from years of strange looks cast at me by city- or suburban-born friends, are only a threat if you are a newspaper boy. When you live in the country, this is most certainly not the case, and especially so if you are on the dog’s territory. I was; the sound of an uneven gait passing through clumped mud told me so. Farmers raise their guard dogs to be fast, strong, mean as hell because stupid kids like to drink and fuck in orchards and stupid wanderers like to daydream between the trees and empty bottles (full condoms). I could just make it out: a huge thing, grayish in color, pert ears back for the chase that I gave a moment after making the observation. How I ran doesn’t matter, through already-stagnant puddles from the morning’s sprinklers or crushing weeds and roots and grasses underfoot, but that I did and quickly. (If you live in the country and actually end up feeling the country you learn to run, even if you don’t  go where you aren’t supposed to and don’t need to; it just manifests somehow.)
    Two more things you learn growing up in the country: the layout of the land, which orchards end where; and that a good dog, no matter how excited to be chasing something that doesn’t just launch up a tree, will not ever run outside its territory. (I’m not precisely sure when this knowledge comes or in what order, but it does, and eventually you learn to combine the two, probably the first time you get chased hard.) So I sprinted for a good five minutes, winding deeper into the orchard and then thrusting myself out, eastward, towards the little spur of a gravel  road off of Hammett that would get me to the rough shrubby patch along the edge of 99. I’m not sure when the thing stopped chasing, but I didn’t stop running until I burst, totally voided of breath, onto those stubborn ugly grasses, fell on my knees in them and their rock-hard dirt and left a fine trail of blood running down the tanned skin of my shins, both sides. My legs have always been used to that abuse, and so I just picked myself up, smiling, and walked on back home, sticking mostly to the streets and cutting through the Ciccarelli orchard to Kiernan (which never had a dog that I’d ever seen).
    The orchard I walk along now is quiet, one of my favorites. It blends mile after mile together into more almond orchards owned by different people (broken by the occasional long dusty road) whose property lines don’t matter if you know how to walk the orchards without drawing attention to yourself, and if you walk to certain places within those orchards, you can find places that don’t matter to the rest of the world: an old farmhouse with a small enclosure, where there are ducks, and geese, and chickens, and a bull who will charge the unstable fence if you linger at the property too long. There’s another one, further back into the miles, with an old bay mare that walks right up to the fence and lets you pet it until the property owner comes out: git, git. It’s California, but the farmers still say things like “git” when you loiter on their farms petting their animals.
    My car--no, not my car, the other one--drives up, past the orchard, slowing down and I know its driver is peering through the trees for me. But it’s not like I haven’t been terrified in my fair share of orchards by burly farmers protecting their stock with a vengeance: I crouch slowly, taking up against a bulky tree, and wait until the engine whirrs off somewhere. Then I move quickly, deeper into the orchards, westward, because that driver can run faster than I can, can probably outsmart me, but doesn’t know these trees like I do.
    I stop myself near one of the dirt veins that run through the orchards, housing small wells and debris piles full of trimmings, and sit down on the concrete lip of a buried cistern. It’s filled with pond scum, missing the pond, crawling up miraculously along the chinked side walls. I smile without feeling it and move my eyes up into that metal-cold blue, the sun a spot of chillier-still non-color, wondering what I’ll say when I get back home. Maybe nothing; maybe it’s time to just say nothing. I lean a hand hard onto my jeans and watch the trees for the birds, whose songs mingle.
    (Mourning Doves have the most beautiful bird songs I’ve ever known. I used to only get to hear that lovely heartaching song when I was down in Arcadia to visit my grandparents, because there was a big oak tree in the front yard and the doves loved to perch in it and sing in the southern California morning sunlight [sunlight accompanies every season down there, and people tend to assume the same of up here]. I wonder whether the new owners took the oak tree out.)
    I feel like a hick, picking birdsongs out, but it’s such an honest knowledge that I don’t bother to try to censor it for anyone. I grew up with them, knowing what the birds are and what they look like too--just like I grew up to know where to run through the orchards, how to avoid mad dogs and men alike. The last thought strikes me, and I’m recovering from its pause when a dog I wasn’t prepared for breaks loudly through the brush lining the trees, barking and spitting.

    “Shouldn’t’ve done that. Why did you go?”
    I don’t reply, and try to resist the feel of alcohol eating at my blood (dog saliva, crazy fucking mutt). The wince comes slowly over my face.
    “I was driving, you know.” There is a pause and another sting. “Looking for you. It’s impossible for you to not have seen me.”
    My eyes are lowered and I stretch my hands out, curl the fingers back in, feel the skin tighten and scowl at the floor. My right fist is running red, coated in dried splotches settled over purpling flourishes from under the skin. The patterns are pleasing. If I said that, there would be laughter of some kind in response, but it would be unpleasant; not endearing or even tolerant. I don’t. I stopped saying what I thought at some point before my hair started turning gray-blonde, and I feel the slow stupid dryness of my mind, blank. Instead, I’m thinking images--impossibly tiny fragmented pieces of sensation like my left foot rolling over the smooth oval of an almond shell and interrupting my running, the warm sweating soak of the dog’s breath on my fist as I wrestle with it, a hard staple of pain in my shoulder as white knives hit me and tear, the up sensation--just up, no vision of down or thought of how--of scaling a chainlink fence and then the hateful pregnancy of waiting for my feet to move me home.
    “You should thank that dog. I could have hit you myself for being such a child.”
    My jaw tightens. I would give anything to smell bay laurel, eucalyptus, to be driving along a highway rimmed with ferns and moss and picketed by stern tall redwoods. I breathe. Drive further along the ridge and there’s a view of the sea over Pescadero, and on the other side I can’t see yet there’s a big marsh, golden brown like almonds right now but filled with migratory birds; beyond that, acres of farms bordered by rolling hills that find themselves quickly and rise higher (mountains). I know there’s an animal sanctuary hidden in those hills, and a restaurant that says it’s famous for its artichoke (best in the world) but is really just a local joint (artichoke from this strip of Pacific is the best in the world, it’s true), and a pick-your-own farm that has blackberries, olallieberries, boysenberries (my favorite) and strawberries in the summertime. The smell of the Pacific brushes past somewhere I can’t name and I shudder.
    “But really--” the sound of the alcohol-soaked cotton ball hitting the trashcan next to the toilet I’m perched on is sick with phlegm and grows like a thick moldy gauze in the air--“you’re almost forty. I’m not sure why it is you think this is acceptable behavior. Walking in the orchards.”
    “Sorry, baby.” I’ve mumbled it to myself, and the words are bitter in my mouth as they bubble out.
    “Shut up. Don’t call me that.”
    I look up, my cuts bandaged, and go to sit on the windowsill of my old room. There is no resistance to this need and that, at least, takes a festering weight from somewhere hard and boxed in me. I kick some of the boxes aside, filled with my mom’s old china dolls and the children’s books (mine when I was little) she gave to me, hoping I’d have an edge over my brother on reproducing. A short storm of dust flowers out, clinging to my moist legs (to get the wounds clean I had to strip down) in the heat, and I stir up countless more as I make my way to the dirtied sill. Dirt doesn’t bother me and it will wash off the underwear, even if I’ll catch hell about it first, so I sit down without reservation and stare outside.
    I’ve never been attacked by one of those dogs. I’ve always been able to outrun them. It drags on my mind and I wonder: is it because I’m older? Maybe my instincts just aren’t as sharp. I laugh painfully. Nah. My back curls into the straightness of the wall, head rolling back, and I feel thin. Not fragile, maybe, but soluble. Weird word. I used to feel things like feminine and poetic and embarrassed, but now I just curl my hands over my shoulder blades and enjoy that I haven’t lost the shape of my body.
    Feeling these things are tiring, and my eyes close around a brush of winter air from the window. One of the owls from the fir trees out front calls out something sharp. I’m realizing as I run my hands over my bruised and scraped legs (raw and scabbing, still dirty on the skin between abrasions) that I never cleaned them (my hands, that is), and there are cracking rivulets of red scattering from the hard blossoms of rubbed-off skin, looking oddly polished on the knuckles so close to the bone. The bite marks that make my tannish hands into fleshy imperfect constellations are deeper, though, and the blood has made a rotted brown lining for them. The edges of tattered, punctured skin are fresh, still, pinkish and slowly turning white like dying. My eyes are dry, but I don’t want to touch them with the awful dirt of my hands.
    I walk out of the cluttered room and call down the hallway: “I should go to the hospital.” There’s a laugh from what used to be Mom’s bedroom (it was pink when she bought it and she painted it yellow before I went to college; I picked the color scheme for her) and a “You don’t. Shut up” mercifully overridden by the sensuality of a curling summer wind. I sit down by the door jamb and hold my dirty knees.


    A few weeks (couple of months, maybe even) after the dog, I’m sitting, hunched, on the edge of the cheap white bathtub which has been flaking pieces of its skin off for as long as I can remember. It hurts.
    “Why do you always get sick as soon as it’s flu season?”
    “Bad immune system. You know that.” My face is flawed, collapsing in the weight of the pain. My stomach is cramping, electrical tremors moving smoothly through my torso and making me sweat. When my fingers touch the scars all down my arms and over my hands I feel a numbing pulse of fear. I’ve stayed away from that orchard since. It hasn’t done my hands much good.
    I cough into my hands, which are clean now but pocked with the difficult scars. “Can you check my forehead?”
    There’s a cold pressure on my brow and then, swiftly, nothing. “You’re burning the fuck up. Jesus.”
    “Make me some tea?”
    “I’m doing things. It’s not that hard for you, right?” I stare blankly at a figure that is solid but shallow. It feels like a sculpture. There isn’t anything I can do; I pull myself further into my curled form. The peach colors of the linoleum my thin toes are touching is changing, the full roses blooming until the petals burst out of the modest leaves and scatter around, rippling under the floor. I drag my toes away and my stomach contracts hard. The bile comes up smooth and hot, and I choke on its texture.
    I want to go walking. My legs are poised to get up, but footsteps fall into the room and there is a slight scoff at the sick liquid in the toilet next to me.